Welcome to the ESPN FC hotlist, which highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe’s top leagues each month.
Generally, young but established stars like Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona‘s Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and who could potentially be the European football’s next big name.
October’s key stats (via ESPN Stats & Info)
Chances created: 12 (1st for Napoli)
Expected Assists: 1.34 (1st)
Shots: 10 (2nd)
Kvaratskhelia has emerged from the relative obscurity of Eastern European football (though we did tip him for success this season) to take centre stage in the Champions League within months. Forced to leave Russian side Rubin Kazan after the country’s invasion of Ukraine, he returned to his native Georgia to sign for Dinamo Batumi in March and, in July, was snapped up by Napoli for around €12 million.
With seven goals and eight assists in his 15 Serie A and Champions League outings so far this season, the immediate impact of the forward has been nothing short of sensational. Typically lined up in an advanced position on the left, Kvaratskhelia has caught the eye across the continent with his high-speed dribbling and ability to set up (and get on the end of) triangles and combinations that lead to shots on goal or a key chance.
His dribbling skills have prompted the nickname “Kvaradona” (no mean feat to be compared to the legendary Diego Maradona when the stadium you play in is named after him) and were typified in the performance against Roma on Sunday when he recorded 18 dribbles; half of them successful. This month he has managed three goals and five assists in all competitions as Napoli have gone top of Serie A.
In addition to his skill on the ball (he averages nearly seven touches in the opposing penalty area per game, which speaks volumes about the progressive nature of his game), Kvaratskhelia also possesses a right foot with the sensitivity to curl efforts into the far corner when he cuts in from the left. Perhaps the greatest compliment of them all: Napoli’s notoriously demanding head coach, Luciano Spalletti, has also started to rely on the Georgia international over the full 90 minutes.
October’s key stats (in UCL only)
Shots on goal percentage: 66% (1st for Shakhtar)
Chances created: 3 (2nd)
Expected Goals: 0.48 (2nd)
The Ukraine international is building a reputation as one of the top prospects outside the traditional major European leagues. This month he enjoyed two respectable Champions League performances against Real Madrid, set up three goals in a league match against Metalist and chipped in with a goal and assist against Shakhtar Donetsk’s main rivals, Dynamo Kiev, in another league win (3-1.) The icing on the cake, however, was a stunning individual goal — neatly struck into the top corner from outside the box — in the Champions League against Celtic in Glasgow.
The creative, technically gifted Mudryk shares some of the qualities of aforementioned Kvaratskhelia and, being a right-footed inverted winger, he also thrives when cutting in diagonally on his right foot, while his shooting technique (64% of his efforts this season have hit the target) is similar to the Georgian’s.
While Kvaratskhelia often relies on one-twos and combinations to get on the scoresheet (and is stronger defensively), Mudryk doesn’t mind going it alone and can produce a goal or a defence-splitting assist in an instant of sudden creativity.
October’s key stats
Passes in final third: 46 (1st for Groningen)
Expected Goals: 1.54 (1st)
Shots: 7 (1st=)
Whether thrown into the Bundesliga too early or feeling the weight of the €16.36m transfer fee (the highest for a homegrown player in Major League Soccer history), former FC Dallas striker Pepi was still looking to get off the mark for his new club Augsburg, having made 15 league appearances, when he joined Dutch side Groningen on loan at the end of the summer transfer window.
As with many other young forwards short of confidence before him, the Dutch Eredivisie has proven to be a fine arena for the USMNT star to find his form ahead of the World Cup. Often looking off the pace in the Bundesliga, the 19-year-old appears more alert and assertive now; his aggressive pressing resulted in an excellent solo goal in the 4-2 win against top side PSV at the weekend.
Aside from the goals — five so far in the league; four of which were scored in October — the space on offer in the Dutch league has seen Pepi’s link-up game improve too.
October’s key stats
Recovery: 26 (2nd= for Benfica)
Tackles: 8 (1st)
Interceptions: 7 (2nd=)
Within the space of a few months, Luis has gone from a fringe player to a key component for Benfica. Having made the breakthrough in 2019, the Portugal U21 international spent two years on loan at Monaco and Getafe. But now, under the guidance of newly appointed German head coach Roger Schmidt, the 23-year-old has enjoyed ample playing time and trust as the main grafter of the two central midfielders at Benfica, who are undefeated so far this season.
While a certain lack of physicality in duels is often held against the youngster, there are few who match his action radius or have a better sense of where to snatch the ball. In the 1-0 away win at FC Porto last Friday, the industrious midfielder entered an impressive 26 challenges in midfield (60% success rate) and no fewer than nine ball recoveries, thus enjoying one of those performances where he seemed be sweeping up the ball everywhere, before circulating it intelligently.
Despite recent reports linking him with Liverpool, Luis recently committed to a new five-year deal with Benfica.
October’s key stats
Tackles: 8 (2nd= for Barcelona)
Duels: 46 (7th)
Touches: 435 (4th)
As Barcelona continue to ponder the long-term successor to Jordi Alba at left-back — given Marcos Alonso is also in his 30s — Balde staked a strong claim for the spot with an assured performance in the 4-0 home win against Athletic Club on Sunday. The La Masia graduate registered his best outing to date for the first team and though there will be plenty of ups and downs ahead for the young defender, he showed some encouraging signs of improvement in areas of his game that are still subject to development.
While no one has ever doubted Balde’s athleticism, speed, energy or willingness to support the attack, defensively he has been less imposing and can still at times show his naivety. However, the left-back was never particularly troubled by the potential threat represented by in-form Nico Williams‘ presence on the right side of the Athletic attack.
Furthermore, Balde repeatedly won the ball in advanced positions, excelled in attacking one-vs.-ones and, looking increasingly assured in possession, is becoming a more dependable option on the left when Barcelona play out from the back.
October’s key stats
Chances created: 11 (1st for Frankfurt)
Expected Goals: 2.72 (2nd)
Key pass: 11 (1st)
Following a fine debut season in the Bundesliga, the Denmark international has been in mesmerising form for Eintracht Frankfurt this campaign. Not only has Lindstrom turned inspirational flashes into the consistency associated with a genuine difference maker, but he’s also arguably been among the elite attacking midfielders in the Bundesliga over the past month with four goals and one assist.
His brace against Borussia Monchengladbach at the weekend drew a precise illustration of how and where he poses most danger; usually tucked in to the right behind the main striker, Lindstrom thrives in that space and can advance into the penalty area with his close ball control and persistent dribbling. Against Bayer Leverkusen a week earlier he finished off a similar move — Frankfurt winning the ball early and feeding him in the same area — with an exquisite right-footed chip.
October’s U23 hotlist: Kvaratskhelia, Mudryk, Pepi shine
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